The theatre has been a longtime conduit of both talent and content for the world of film, with the more populist art-form often providing a greater platform for stage work and performers. Many film directors got their start working in the theatre, while a large number have also juggled stage and screen throughout their careers. When you really break it down, however, it’s usually one or the other, with a clear preference obvious on the resumes of most directors. The late Milton Katselas (who passed away in 2008 at the age of 74) was most certainly a man of the theatre, with only a very small body of cinematic work to his name. His four 1970s feature films (and two telemovies), however, are all strong, striking, original works, and point to what could have been a truly fascinating career if Katselas had opted to focus more on the big screen.
Milton Katselas was born in 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Greek immigrant restauranteur parents. Milton’s father later went into the movie theatre business, and also ran a local theatre company of Greek actors. Fascinated by the world of theatre, Katselas studied drama at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech, but received his first big break on a visit to New York, where he snuck in to watch the legendary Lee Strasberg’s class at The Actor’s Studio. Katselas also had a chance encounter with acclaimed director and fellow Greek Elia Kazan, who he stopped on the street. Both speaking Greek, Kazan encouraged Katselas to return to New York when he finished college. Following his graduation in 1954, Katselas began studying with Strasberg, and also served as an apprentice to Kazan.
Katselas worked with a number of other high profile stage directors (including Joshua Logan and eventual renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner) before making his directorial debut with the original 1960 Off-Broadway production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. After more successful stage work, Katselas was nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway production of Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies Are Free in 1969, which would end up kick-starting his sporadic film career. When the movie adaptation of Butterflies Are Free was set up by producer M.J Frankovich, Katselas was tapped to direct. The resulting film was an absolute delight, featuring an early lead role for Goldie Hawn, who literally bursts off the screen as Jill, a hippy-style free spirit who warms the heart of the young blind man (the excellent Edward Albert) who lives next door, much to the chagrin of his mother (Eileen Heckart, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her excellent performance). Rich in sentiment and humour, Butterflies Are Free is very much a film of its time, and its reputation has unfairly diminished somewhat over the years.
The performances in the film are fantastic, and Katselas was instantly recognised as a director with a fine facility for working with actors. In 1973, he worked again with Butterflies Are Free playwright Leonard Gershe and star Edward Albert on an adaptation of Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy’s stage play 40 Carats. The story of an uptight forty-year-old real estate agent (Liv Ullmann) who loosens up when she has an affair with a 22-year-old steel industry heir (Edward Albert), the film is barely remembered today, but was considerably ahead of its time in dealing with an older woman-younger man relationship with sensitivity and intelligence, as well as the expected humour.
Katselas made a striking detour with his next film, turning to a book instead of a play for inspiration. Adapted from James Mills’ novel, 1975’s Report To The Commissioner is a Serpico-style treatise on police and political corruption as wired, anxious and edgy young cop Bo Lockley (Michael Moriarty is brilliantly manic, showing why he was one of the most interesting actors of the 1970s) is caught up in the murder of an undercover female detective (the terrific Susan Blakely, who would go on to star in the TV phenomenon Rich Man, Poor Man) and the shady machinations of a Times Square drug dealer (Tony King). Perfectly capturing the grimy, sleazy, and horribly grim underbelly of New York in the 1970s, as well as the political cynicism awash in that morally adrift decade, Report To The Commissioner is a tough and often highly unusual crime drama deserving of a far better reputation than the practically non-existent one it has today.
For his next film, Katselas returned to the theatre for inspiration, but the source material was far tougher and more difficult than his first two pictures. Adapted from Mark Medoff’s play, 1979’s When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder is a bravura examination of mental fracture and human frailty. Former child preacher and 1970s cult figure Marjoe Gortner (the subject of the extraordinary 1972 Oscar winning documentary Marjoe) produces and stars as Teddy, an unhinged Vietnam vet and gun toting thief who mentally terrorises and humiliates the staff and customers of a small roadside diner. An excruciatingly effective exercise in slow burn tension and mental torture, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder offers not just a stunning showcase for Marjoe Gortner (who is truly incredible, dominating a cast of impressive players including Candy Clark, Lee Grant and Hal Linden), but also for Milton Katselas, who shows a real sense of control over this difficult material.
Sadly, the very impressive (and now almost impossible to see) When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder would be Katselas’ final feature film. He did, however, helm two high profile telemovies, impressively teaming powerhouse players Bette Davis and Gena Rowlands as mother and daughter om 1979’s Strangers: The Story Of A Mother And Daughter, and investigating the not so sacred institution of marriage in 1982’s The Rules Of Marriage with Elliott Gould and Elizabeth Montgomery. Katselas’ main interest would eventually become The Beverly Hills Playhouse, where he ran an acting school for thirty years, with students including Gene Hackman, Jenna Elfman, George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Selleck, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ted Danson, Tony Danza, Jeffrey Tambor, Tyne Daly and Doris Roberts.
Later in his career, the reputation of longtime Scientologist Katselas was somewhat smeared when he began to distance himself from the church. As they often do when their members defect, the Scientologists spread rumours about Katselas having inappropriate relationships with his students. They didn’t really take hold, and he remained an acting teacher of renown, publishing the popular books Dreams Into Action: Getting What You Want (a self-help tome which he even discussed on TV with Oprah) and Acting Class: Take A Seat, the handbook at The Beverly Hills Playhouse.
Though something of a divisive and controversial figure due to his strong ties to the always polarising Church Of Scientology, the filmmaking skill of Milton Katselas (who, incidentally, was portrayed by James Franco in Sal, the actor/director’s 2011 biopic on actor Sal Mineo) cannot be denied. Though he only made four films, they are all strong, highly individualistic works that, while obviously connecting back to his roots in the theatre, all pulse and resonate with a true sense of style, originality and energy.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.